By Nick Clark, Editor, World Education News & Reviews
Established in 1952, the West African Examinations Council, known commonly as WAEC, is a regional examination body headquartered in Accra, Ghana that conducts standardized school-level examinations in the five Anglophone countries of West Africa: The Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
The Council develops, administers and grades the regional West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) in all five countries, in addition to national examinations in select countries at lower grade levels. It also conducts examinations for third-party international examination boards and professional licensing bodies.
The WASSCE is standardized across all WAEC member countries, and is offered after completion of the three-year Senior Secondary School (SSS) curriculum. It is also used in most countries as the university admissions examination and to screen students for other non-university institutions of higher learning.
In the accompanying WENR article of this month’s issue, we offer country-by-country overviews of all WAEC examinations and curricula, with sample documents from each country.
Developed as an alternative to UK assessment systems
Four of the five WAEC countries are former British colonies, and have education systems modeled on the UK seed system. Therefore, prior to the introduction of its own examinations, WAEC operated the GCE O- and A-level examinations. The Senior Secondary School system was introduced to replace the GCE curriculum and it was first adopted in Nigeria (1989), followed by Ghana (1993), The Gambia (1998), Sierra Leone (2000) and Liberia (2011).
The last publicly administered O- and A-levels in the region were offered in 1999. As a result, we are seeing fewer and fewer GCE credentials come into the WES offices for evaluation. However, some private secondary schools in the region still offer UK-modeled examinations through Cambridge International Examinations.
The Liberian education system has its roots in the U.S. system of education, but joined WAEC in 1974 and partially adopted the Anglophone West African system. However, due to its protracted civil war, Liberia did not introduce the regional WASSCE examinations and curriculum until very recently. Similarly, in Sierra Leone the introduction of the WASSCE was delayed until 2000 by its years of civil war.
A common educational structure across all WAEC member countries, participation rates stubbornly low
All five countries follow a very similar educational structure that will be familiar to educators in the United States. It consists of nine years of free and compulsory basic education (six years primary, three years junior secondary), followed by three years of upper secondary school (6+3+3).
Despite the introduction of free and compulsory basic education across the region, gross enrollment and completion rates remain relatively low, while progression rates to secondary school are even lower. However, these metrics have been improving in recent years.
According to data from the World Bank, in both Liberia and Sierra Leone, gross enrollment ratios (GER) are currently above 100 percent (102 & 131 respectively), with those missing out on schooling due to civil war now returning. Ghana too enjoys good primary school access with a GER of 100 percent. However, in Gambia and Nigeria, it is significantly lower at 85 percent. A high GER generally indicates a high degree of participation, whether the students belong to the official age group or not.
With regards to primary completion rates, the picture is quite different. In Ghana, an impressive 98 percent of primary school students (as a percentage of the sixth grade age group, regardless of actual student age) completed sixth grade in 2012; however, the rate was much lower in Nigeria (76%), Sierra Leone (72%), The Gambia (70%), and Liberia (65%).
Given the poor primary completion rates, it is not surprising that gross enrollment rates at the lower secondary level are significantly lower than at the primary level: Gambia 57 percent in 2010; Ghana 61 percent in 2013; Liberia 45 percent in 2011; Nigeria 44 percent in 2010; and Sierra Leone 62 percent in 2010.
Across the region, only about one-third of students completing nine years of basic education go forward to senior secondary school, and only about one-third of senior secondary school graduates continue on to higher education. Again, these rates are improving, but still sit well below global averages.
The West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE)
The unified WASSCE exam, which is the current school leaving examination conducted across all five member countries, was initially launched in The Gambia in 1998, and was then adopted in Nigeria (1999), Sierra Leone (2000), Ghana (2006) and Liberia (2011).
The examination is administered twice a year in May/June and in November/December. It combines school-based continuous assessment with external WAEC assessment on a ratio of 30:70. The examination itself is comprised of up to nine individual subject examinations.
The standard of the examination is the same as the Senior School Certificate Examination (SSCE) which until 1999 was run in Nigeria and the Senior Secondary School Certificate Examination (SSSCE) taken in Ghana until 2006.
University admissions & examination grading
University admission in member countries is based in part or in whole on performance in the WASSCE. Broadly speaking, students are required to score grade 6 or better (defined as ‘credit’) in five subjects, including English language and mathematics or a science subject, to be considered for university entry. Some countries, Nigeria most notably, also require a separate centralized university entrance examination, with eligibility based on WASSCE performance. Individual universities in member countries may also administer separate entrance examinations.
WAEC changed its grading system in 1996-7. Under the old system, students were eligible for the school certificate if they obtained minimum passing grades of 50 percent in each subject offered in the WAEC National Examination and a minimum of 70 percent in each school grade. The combined grades of both the school and National Examination of each subject had to be 60 percent.
The current grading system is based on a nine-point system, with 1 through 8 being passing grades and 9 a failing grade. As noted above, students need to score 6 or better in individual subjects to be considered for university admissions. Grading is typically very stringent with few As and Bs awarded.
The official language for all WAEC curricula and examinations is English.
Results for all WAEC exams dating back to the 1990 academic year can be verified quickly and reliably through the West African Examinations Council’s online results checking system, known as WAEC Direct. Each country has a regional result checking website:
Students should provide the credential evaluator with a PIN number that they can purchase for the equivalent of roughly $3 (available at post offices, banks or WAEC regional offices), that can then be used to retrieve a printable copy of their WAEC results.
At WES we use the following grading equivalencies for WASSCE subject examinations:
Nigeria and Ghana dominate West African enrollments in the U.S.
In the United States, there were close to 11,500 students from the WAEC region studying at the tertiary level last year, about half of whom were undergraduates. Nigerian students account for over two-thirds of all Anglophone West African students in the U.S. Ghana is the other major sender, while the other three countries sent just 500 students combined in 2013/14.